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Archive for January 13th, 2014

Why I Think Author Eligibility Posts Are Selfish, Destructive And Counter-Productive

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Today is the last day of nominations for the BSFA Awards. Members can nominate as many times as they wish (I’m on my third set) and here are some things I’d particularly like to see make it onto the shortlist:

  • Best Novel: iD by Madeline Ashby
  • Best Short Fiction: ‘Spin’ by Nina Allan
  • Best Artwork: Yuko Shimizu’s cover for The Melancholy Of Mechagirl by Catherynne M Valente
  • Best Non-Fiction: Jared Shurin on the Gemmell Legend Award shortlist.

Unfortunately, along with the positives of award season (talking about great books) there now comes an inevitable negative (authors posting their eligibility). I thought I’d written my definitive position on this two years ago but sadly things have worsened since then. So here are five beliefs I hold that together explain why I think author eligibility posts are selfish, destructive and, for the majority of authors, counter-productive.

1) Posting your eligibility is lobbying for awards

This should be blindingly obvious. The only possible effect of posting about the eligibility of your work is to change the number of people who nominate that work. This is, after all, why authors do it. Yet the fact that this is lobbying is mysterious elided in most conversations about eligibility posts which instead subsume it into the broader issue of self-promotion or couch it in the neutral terms of increasing voter information.

The brilliant thing for authors is that they don’t need to say “nominate me” or even “my work is worth nominating” (which strangely they recoil from) for the lobbying to be effective. But to claim there is no connection is about as sophisticated example of sophistry as this.

2) Reader voted awards are for readers, not authors

Perhaps this is a more understandable bit of confusion as speculative fiction has always had a very permeable barrier between fan and pro. So in the Hugos we have fans (some of whom are pros) voting for fan categories (for which pros are eligible), for pro categories (for which fans are eligible) and even, bizarrely, for industry categories that it is impossible for them to know anything about. But regardless of whether you are a fan or a pro or somewhere in between, when it comes to nominating fiction, you are acting in a specific capacity: as a reader.

A helpful analogy might be to reviews. An author might review another author but they must do so with their reader hat on and whilst a positive review might benefit the author receiving it, that is a side effect of its main purpose to inform other readers of the quality of the text. The same is true of awards where the purpose of voting is for readers to form a critical consensus around the best fiction of the year. Authors ‘helping’ voters to complete their ballots are no more neutral than authors ‘helping’ reviewers to interpret their work.

Authors have more power than readers and it is easy for them to unintentionally poison reader spaces, whether that is reviews or awards. Yet whilst the social norms preventing this still apply quite strongly to reviews, they have been stretched to breaking point with respect to awards. This year, we have seen authors accelerate the trend of taking ownership of the space by actively erasing readers. Take, for example, this quote from author Amal El-Mohtar’s widely discussed post about author’s publishing their eligibility: “There’s a peculiar, unbearable, vicious smugness in sitting back and talking about how tacky it is of people to list their publications and that of course YOU won’t do so because while winning awards is nice naturally YOU don’t really care about them.” The conversation has entirely shifted from readers to authors, from voting for awards to winning awards.

3) Eligibility posts don’t help readers to make their ballots more diverse

A new argument made this year – and the key thrust of El-Mohtar’s justification for such posts – is that if all authors publish their eligibility then this will increase diversity in award shortlists by correcting the tendency of women and minorities to be less comfortable at self-promotion. The first thing to say is that self-promotion (“please read my book”) is not the same as lobbying (“please tell people that my book is one of the best of the year”) and it is perfectly possible to want people to be more comfortable in promoting their work without wanting them to lobby for it.

This brings us to the arms race argument where authors might concede that perhaps in an ideal world they wouldn’t need to lobby but since some people do (and white men are more likely to do it) then others need to do it or they risk being drowned out. As a point of principle, a vote for yourself can never be a noble act; as a point of practicality, eligibility posts are an incredibly poor way of making your voice heard. If you are worried that someone has got a megaphone, cupping your hands together and shouting is not going to get you far. More than that, complaining about those people asking both of you to keep it down is just going to entrench the existing problem.

4) Readers are not employers

Part of the problem, I think, is two related issues intersecting in an unhelpful way. The first is that women are systematically disadvantaged in the workplace due to patriarchal culture, both visible (women remain the default carer and earnings never recover if you leave the workplace to become a carer) and invisible (the way women have been taught to act and the way people perceive the way women act). The second is that women are equally disadvantaged in the arts. This later point is set out by Coffee & Ink in this post in favour of eligibility posts but the trouble with the intersection is set out in the comments:

There has been a recent study showing pretty conclusively that in businesses that tout their culture as being one of meritocracy, so therefore, you know, no pesky diversity issues need to be considered, white men are rewarded much more […] And while the study may have looked at businesses, writing and publishing and all that….is a business.

The problem is suggesting that awards are rewards equivalent to bonuses or promotions. Readers aren’t authors’ employers, publishers are authors’ employers; readers are at the bottom of the power differential, not the top. This is not to say that readers should abdicate all responsibility for ensuring that reader spaces are diverse, merely that it is most appropriate for readers themselves to address the issue. The need for the employee to be assertive to secure a deserved performance reward does not map across to literary awards (and where it does map across – for example, contracts – it needs to be directed at publishers). Rather there is a need for a collective discussion about what readers want from their awards, a discussion made harder by authors attempting to take ownership of it.

5) Literature is not a business

Yes, publishing is an industry but literature is an art. From my perspective, speculative fiction increasingly seems to be losing sight of this and we are moving to a situation where reviews and awards are viewed simply as publicity material. Worse, at any sign of push back to this cultural shift, authors play the victim. Slowly it is becoming the new norm for readers and authors alike.

I find it very sad. I don’t want to live in a world where books are the same as toothbrushes and readers are just consumers. I want awards to be about readers recognising and discussing exceptional work. At its best, eligibility posts would be irrelevant to this process since authors are uniquely poorly placed to assess the quality of their own work. But the ubiquity of such posts and their vociferous defence means they become actively harmful.

So I would like authors to be honest. If, on the one hand, you think your story is one of the six best published last year then say so. If, on the other hand, you don’t think your story is that good but, for what ever reason, you still want the kudos of an award then say that. If you can’t or won’t say either, perhaps you shouldn’t say anything at all. Or, even better, do what readers do: talk about someone else’s work.

Written by Martin

13 January 2014 at 18:28

Posted in awards, sf